Tips for Answering NCLEX Style Questions

  • 04 March, 2022

You have taken hundreds of tests so far in your life - probably thousands! - so why is it so hard to pass those nursing exams with NCLEX style questions?

NCLEX questions are not just rote memorization as you might find in other disciplines. You cannot just learn that 2+2 is always 4 and know that 4 will be your answer. NCLEX style questions are designed to help you analyze and apply all the pieces of nursing knowledge. You know the anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, and pharmacology...but can you combine them all to take care of your client?

To help you do your best on the in-class exams as well as the NCLEX, here are some tips to help you approach the questions the right way.

Tips for Answering NCLEX Style Questions

First things first!!!

Before you can take the test, you need to take care of YOU! That means taking care of your body and mind to make sure they are in the best state to take a test. Let's take a look at a couple of these.

Tips for the testing environment

Control the aspects of your environment that you can. You may not be able to listen to music or turn the lights down, but you can use earplugs that are provided at NCLEX testing centers. (You should be able to bring your own earplugs to use during class exams if needed, just be sure to ask your instructor.)

When you feel yourself getting tense, anxious or losing hope, close your eyes and take some deep breaths.

Tips for your Body

Take a break when you need it. While taking your NCLEX exam, the computer will offer you a break at the 2-hour mark and at 3 1/2 hours, but you can take additional breaks as needed. (All break time used does count towards your overall testing time so these should be short breaks!) It can be tempting to just sit and try to get through the test as quickly as possible. But if your body or brain are uncomfortable, your thought process is not going to be as effective.

Raise your hand to alert the room monitor you need a break. You cannot leave the building, but you can take a bathroom break and stretch your body. While you are stretching, be sure to open your arms out to open up your shoulders and chest and take some slow, deep breaths - those breaths can help increase your oxygen level to help you think, but they can also help to reduce your anxiety and slow down any unhealthy thought process that is interfering with your test taking. The stretching helps loosen those tight muscles before you go back to finish your test.

Now, on to the Test!!!!

Tips for answering a question

  1. Read the question ALL THE WAY THROUGH. Do not stop reading halfway through the questions because you think you know what it's asking. Read it COMPLETELY so you can identify what the question is asking.

  2. Once you've read the question, stop, and try to answer it without reading the provided options. If you can answer confidently without reviewing the options, you will be less likely to change your answer once you have seen the options! If you weren't able to answer without reading the options, it's okay! Now, you just need to dig into the questions a little more!

  3. Reread the question to find key phrases or keywords that are in the question stem. Those keywords and phrases can be a key to unlocking the answer! They tell you what will tell you what the answer is expecting. Words such as best, first, always, never, primary, initial/immediate action, most appropriate, expected outcome, priority action are the big ones to watch for! If you are taking a paper exam in class, it's a great idea to circle or underline these words (if you can write on the test) or just write it on your allowed scrap paper or dry-erase board.

  4. It might seem silly to say to "just eliminate wrong answers," but it is actually pretty important! Usually, you can take a question that has 4 answers and eliminate at least one answer, you can even confidently eliminate 2!. Great! Now, you have just increased your chances of answering correctly (even if only by guessing) from 25% to up to 50%! One trick for evaluating an answer to see if it should be eliminated is to re-read or re-word the question using each answer choice. If it doesn't seem to fit with the question or cannot accurately complete the sentence, eliminate it, and move on to the next option for evaluation.

  5. Try to visualize the scenario that is presented in the question and remove any bias or pre-conceived ideas about how the scenario might go. If you picture a unit where you have worked that is often short-staffed or a healthcare provide that does not want to be notified of certain results, you might miss an answer because you assume what the question is asking for isn't possible. But for nursing exams, including the NCLEX, we are looking at ideal circumstances - staffing levels, acuity ratios, staff personalities, are all assumed to be ideal. Use the context of an ideal situation to answer your question.

  6. Prioritize the client's needs based on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. If a question is looking for priority (remember those keywords and phrases - first, initial, most important, priority action) you must meet your client's basic needs before moving up the hierarchy. So, start at the base.

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs

1.PHYSIOLOGICAL NEEDS - breathing, eating, drinking, talking, excreting, and sleeping. If your client has a problem in any of these areas, it is a priority. And you may need to additionally prioritize multiple physiological needs (Your client's breathing is more important than them being able to eat lunch right now.)
2.SAFETY - injury and illness prevention, security, trust. If there is a need for preventing an illness or injury that is the next priority of client care.
3.BELONGING - client support systems need to be in place to prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation.
4.SELF-ESTEEM - feeling competent and in control of a situation can increase compliance and outlook
5.SELF-ACTUALIZATION - achieving potential wellness is accomplished through hope, growth, and spirituality.

Answering alternative format questions

While the tips above are ideal for multiple choice and select all that apply, they can also be applied to alternate format questions. But each alternative style question also has its own quirks to be aware of.

1.Answering fill-in-the-blank questions: be sure to use the provided onscreen calculator and/or the note board provided for doing your own calculations. Be sure to read the complete directions on the question - it may specify to answer using one or two decimal places. If math isn't your strongest point and you feel overwhelmed by these questions, do not stress! Most NCLEX questions are not mathematical questions! Do your best and move on.
2.Answering hot spot questions - for hot spot questions you will be given an image and need to place the cursor on where the correct answer is. You might have a question ask where you will place your stethoscope to assess for a murmur. A picture of a chest with multiple areas to place the cursor. You want to place the cursor in the ideal location for that heart tone. Take a minute to visualize the body and to think about your landmarks and reference points.
3.Drag and drop questions - these questions want you to take the responses and drag them into the correct order. Logically, some of the steps must occur before others. Arrange them in the order you think and then read them and think about the order to make sure it correct.
4.Exhibit questions - When you have a question with an exhibit, the most important thing to do it to LOOK AT THE ENTIRE EXHBIT. There may be multiple tabs to look at so be sure to open each tab. Take notes on your note boards to keep track of the information.

Even after going through all these steps, at some point, you may come to a question that you still feel don't feel confident answering. That is ok! You do not need a perfect score! Take a deep breath, make your best selection, and move on. Do not let that question mess with your mind. You have more important things to focus on now - you're about to become a Registered Nurse!

If you are ready to begin preparing to take the NCLEX-RN, EduMind can help you review everything you have learned in your nursing program! Contact us today to find out how!


Hrelic, D. (2018). Test-taking tips. American Nurse Today, 12(2), 49-51. Retrieved February 7, 2022, from

About the Author: Lana Wilkins, MSN, BSN, RN

Lana Wilkins is a Registered Nurse with over 16 years of professional nursing. She is a nursing educator, consultant, Subject Matter Expert, and writer with a passion for helping students and new nurses. She holds a B.S. in Nursing from the University of Oklahoma and a M.S. in Nursing Education from Western Governors University. Outside of the world of nursing she can be found managing the chaos of 2 kids, a husband, and a cat, being crafty, or spending time with friends.

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